I recently got to talk to Chase Woolner about his role in ‘The Muppets’. Here, Chase talks about how he got involved in the project and about his career as a puppeteer…
Hey Chase. Thanks for taking the time out to talk to me about the new film, ‘The Muppets’.
What’s the general plotline surrounding the film?
My pleasure. Thank you very much for asking. ‘The Muppets’, is essentially about the rite of passage for two new characters – Gary and Walter – and their quest to save the Muppet Theatre from an evil oil baron that wants to tear it down. Gary and Walter bring the classic Muppet characters back together for a show.
Tell us a bit about the character you play in the movie…
My role in the film was as an “Additional Muppet Performer”, which is an extra pair of skilled hands to help perform in Muppet crowd scenes. So, each day I was on set I was asked to help out whichever character that needed wiggling. Examples of these scenes in the film are when the Muppets are in the network executive’s office and the Rainbow Connection finale.
How did you get involved in the project in the first place? Had you always been a fan of ‘The Muppets’?
I have always been a fan of the Muppets – from a very young age. In fact they are the ones that encouraged me to become a puppeteer, which I started at age five. The product that the Muppets produce has always been very fun and positive and I saw that in the Muppeteers when watching documentaries. Since then I’ve dedicated myself to learning about all of the styles of puppetry and really training myself in the art form. As for how I got involved in the film, I am always looking for new experiences, new places to learn and new people to meet within the craft. Two years ago during a winter break from school, I saw a posting that Steve Whitmire – (Kermit the Frog, Rizzo the Rat, Wembly Fraggle) was giving a lecture called The Sentient Puppet, and a performance workshop at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, GA. As soon as I finished reading the article I called the center to reserve tickets and bought a plane ticket to Atlanta to fly in and out the day of the lecture because I knew I HAD to be there.
The day of the lecture, I’ll never forget…it was a chilly, icy Atlanta morning and I arrived early, toured the Center’s puppet collection, and attended Steve’s lecture which had a lot of great points/perspectives on puppetry. Then, after a short break, was a series of puppetry workshops in which groups of the attendees got to perform on camera with Steve lip-syncing to songs. It was really a lot of fun and after the workshop Steve pulled me aside and said, “You were very good in there, you know, we’re doing this upcoming film, could I have your contact info?”. Of course, I was shocked… stopped breathing and stammered some sort of response. But that is the beginning of the story of how I was invited to Hollywood to work with the Muppets thanks to Steve Whitmire and the Center for Puppetry Arts.
How would you say this film continues Jim Henson’s original legacy?
I believe this film continues Jim Henson’s legacy by continuing on with the characters he and his group created as well as maintaining the character’s spirit and integrity. The lead Muppeteers do a very good job at knowing who their characters are and what they do and do not say. That’s the strength of a good group and a good cast.
The film stars Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones, Kermit The Frog and Miss Piggy – with James Bobin onboard as director – what was it like working with the cast and crew on-set? Any good anecdotes?
Everyone on the Muppet set was great to work with. Everyone was having fun and enjoying the long days of shooting. The set of the Muppet Theatre was truly amazing both in scale and detail, working on that set and performing in the Rainbow Connection finale are some of my favourite memories. I didn’t get to interact a ton with Jason Segal or Amy Adams, but I when around them I can say that they both radiated enthusiasm and kindness.
Which is your favourite Muppet?
Kermit is. I love Kermit the Frog.
Let’s talk a bit about you Chase. What made you want to get into the industry in the first place?
Well, I’m in the industry because I’m a puppeteer and puppet designer. That’s what I was born to do and be. I grew up in downtown Chicago in the 90’s. In and of itself, Chicago has a wonderful history of puppetry in early television with ‘Burr Tillstrom’s Kuklapolitans’, ‘Garfield Goose And Friends’, ‘Marshall Fields’ Uncle Mistletoe’, etc. What made the 90’s so unique was that there was a surge in new television programs featuring puppetry on PBS. Shows such as ‘The Puzzle Place’, ‘Barney’, ‘Wimzie’s Playhouse’, ‘Tots TV’ and ‘Dudley The Dragon’ in addition to the continuation of ‘Sesame Street’, ‘Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood’ and ‘Lambchop’.
While an actor or dancer can imitate a monkey, flower or tape dispenser, a puppet can BE all of those things in addition to being an actor, dancer and singer. In a sense, it’s a heightened version of method acting. A puppet is also a physical object that exists in space and time. The character has the ability to create a presence, do the impossible and change its form in an instant. Two prime examples are the horses in Handspring Puppets production of ‘War Horse’, and the Firey’s in Jim Henson’s ‘Labyrinth’.
The horse figures bring very convincing equestrienne life to the live theatre stage to be performed night, after night, after night. Having real horses on stage would be impractical, but the presence of a life-sized sculptural form with the mannerisms of a horse is the perfect solution. The Fireys – in real-time – sing, speak, play basketball with their heads, gain additional arms and legs etc. It’s marvelous and exactly the type of things that live performers are unable to do in and of themselves.
The first time that I met Jane Henson, she asked me the same question of how I got started, and I told her I started at age five, at which she laughed and asked: “What were you doing before that?”. [It’s] a marvelous question because when children are playing with their dolls/plushes and coming up with stories they are basically puppeteering. It’s a natural human development and coping mechanism. It just happens that puppeteers are people who never grew out of this stage and simply built upon their human instinct.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to get into the industry?
The best advice I can give to someone interested in trying out puppetry is… just do it. I know that may seem like a frustrating answer, but it is the best one. Just do it. There’s no “correct” way to start or fall into puppetry. Look at many different books on puppetry, talk to many different puppeteers and puppet designers/builders, watch clips on YouTube, find movies and old television programs, build your own designs, study the various style, techniques, craft, history and then start developing your own voice as an artist.
A mentor of mine was once telling a story, which turned into a rant and he said; “I’m tired of people coming to me and asking, ‘How do I become a puppeteer?’ You can’t BE a puppeteer. You either ARE or you AREN’T!” I think this is great Yoda-like advice, you know. “Do or do not, there is no try”. I feel that this is the way that everything should be approached. And really, similar to animation there are so many aspects to puppetry that there are many routes to take. The most important thing is to be positive and love what you do. You’re playing with puppets! Just do it.
What is your favourite word?
Awesome. Awesome is my favourite word because it is positive and spans a massive field of greatness to explain whatever is awesome. It can be negative too, as in; “That’s not awesome,” but it’s not as blunt as other words can be. It’s just awesome.
If you could have dinner with three guests – (living or dead), who would you choose and why?
Jim Henson would be on that list, and Frank Oz. President Obama also.
Jim and Frank, just to listen to them and be in the room. President Obama because voting for him in 2008 is one of things I’m proudest of. Essentially they are invited to dinner because they are awesome.
If you were stranded on a desert island, what three personal things could you not live without?
Three personal things…..well I have a bear and a blanket that have traveled with me everywhere and would like for them to continue. The third thing…..I’m not sure about – but I’ll find out when/if I get stranded.
What’s coming up for you in 2012?
2012 is a cool year so far…or should I say Awesome? Thus far I’ve received my undergraduate degree from California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in theatre/puppetry. Since then I’ve been doing a lot of traveling around the country teaching puppetry courses. I am also designing and building for a few productions as well. We’ll see what else the future holds. Should be exciting…and by that I mean awesome.
Thanks for the interview!